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Wim Wenders on his Oscar-nominated film 'Perfect Days'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We see a lot in the life of a man named Hirayama. He's brushing his teeth, clipping his mustache, spraying his houseplants. We see his futon, his books and the cassettes of classic rock that he turns up driving to work in an orange Tokyo Dome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

THE ANIMALS: (Singing) There is a house in New Orleans.

SIMON: Hirayama's work - he cleans toilets in Tokyo and with skill and attention to detail, which we see, too. Hirayama is busy. Is he happy? Is he lonely? What keeps him going? Life is in the details. "Perfect Days" is the latest film from Wim Wenders. It stars Koji Yakusho and is nominated for best international feature film at this year's Academy Awards. Wim Wenders, the acclaimed international filmmaker, joins us now from Los Angeles. Mr. Wenders, thanks so much for being with us.

WIM WENDERS: Good morning, Scott. I'm happy to be with you.

SIMON: I gather the film began in your mind when you were invited to observe the Tokyo Toilet Project?

WENDERS: Yes. They called me because they knew I love Tokyo and architecture. And it just so happened that 15 great architects, who normally build museums and banks and high-rises, built the smallest possible unit for an architect, which is a public toilet. Each of them is different. They are like little marvels of toilets. And I was interested. So I followed the invitation and looked at the toilets and liked them but felt it wasn't really worth making four short documentaries on the architects and their toilets.

On the other hand, it was worth looking at Tokyo at that particular time in life because it was the first moment when the people of Tokyo came back from - after the longest lockdown of two years. And I love the way that happened. I love the way they took possession of their city in such a civilized, friendly, careful way. So as it was an open invitation, I was supposed to be inspired. I said, the whole situation here does inspire me. I love these toilets, but I would rather tell a story. And I could imagine a story about a caretaker of these toilets that speaks about the love for little things. And everything that I like about Japan could sort of come into this movie. All we need is a good script and a great actor. And that became the beginning of "Perfect Days."

SIMON: Hirayama has a young colleague who tells him at one point, don't clean so hard. It's going to get dirty again anyway.

WENDERS: Isn't he right? That's what everybody would say. But Hirayama - I mean, he just looks at him. He doesn't even have an answer for him because, of course, his whole ethos is to do it as good as he can. He's a craftsman. And every Japanese craftsman - his ambition is to do it each day, whatever it is. And even if he's doing the same part, every part is unique and has to be the best.

SIMON: What drives him?

WENDERS: Well, he likes to be of service. And he likes his job. And he loves the surrounding because these toilets are all in parks, and there's trees, and there's light. And he loves trees. His great passion in life are trees, and he loves the light. And he takes pictures of trees and the light flowing through them and casting shadows on the floor. And this is a very Japanese thing.

He's actually a happy man. He's doing everything he likes. He listens to his music. In the evening, he reads a book. He goes to the public bath because his modest apartment doesn't have a bathroom. And he's amazingly content with everything he does and with everything he has.

SIMON: I'm going to sound like a real American now. In America, you are - you know, you're a toilet cleaner. You're a filmmaker. You are what you do. What we understand with Hirayama is he's a hundred different things and a toilet cleaner.

WENDERS: Yeah. Exactly. And I think that's the little miracle of Hirayama and the contagiousness of his work and of his attitude. He is much more than you think at first. You see him work cleaning toilets, and so you easily reduce his job to being a toilet cleaner. But slowly, you realize the richness of his life, and you realize that cleaning a toilet is a strangely metaphoric job. It does have a different connotation in Japan. I mean, there are stories of big corporations going downhill and doing bad, and then the CEO, one day, was seen by his crew - he's cleaning the toilet. And from there on, it went up and became one of the greatest success stories in Japan. Toilet cleaning is a mythical job.

SIMON: Remarkable performance, I thought, by Koji Yakusho. Am I wasting time or mental effort if I find myself wondering, Hirayama seems like he's been broken at some point? Did he have a failed marriage? Did - is he a widower? Did he have a drinking problem? Any or all of that?

WENDERS: Well, I did write the biography for him because, of course, as an actor, Koji Yakusho wanted to know, how did you imagine he became a toilet cleaner? What was I doing before? So I wrote that biography for him. And he was happy and liked it. And yes, he was a businessman. And yes, he was successful. And yes, he was married and then divorced. And yes, there was alcohol. But we felt we didn't really have to spill it out in the film. And actually, we felt more and more it was nice if the audience had to fill it in and had to imagine what he was, and that makes them more involved. And I could tell you what the biography was, but then again, it wouldn't help the movie.

SIMON: You're the famous Wim Wenders, but did the producer ever say to you, look. If you're going to make a toilet cleaner the star of the film, you better also make him a secret agent or some kind of superhero?

WENDERS: Well, that would be the American version of here. Yeah, and in the American version, there would be another plot. There would be another mystery. And you would get all the details of his life. And you would slowly understand what broke him. But this is a Japanese film directed by a German director, and we didn't feel the need to have a spy story or whatever lurked behind or tragedy or whatever. So we just take the man. And he's so special that I think he did carry the movie, and that shows also the audience reaction to him. They love him, and they think he is an amazing example of somebody leading his life differently, consciously in a different way. And that is a little intoxicating, I must say.

SIMON: Wim Wenders. His new film, "Perfect Days" - in theaters now. Mr. Wenders, thanks so much.

WENDERS: Thank you so much, Scott. And I hope you have a lovely rest of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIBUYA SCRAMBLE'S "MEET AT HACHIKO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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